Brunaille, Eighteenth-century Palette

Portrait of Neil

Portrait of Neil


Here is a recently-completed portrait of our friend Neil. I am, among other directions, working toward the brunaille underpainting as a general starting point for my portraits. A brunaille is simply a brown underpainting, usually done in umbers or brown ochre, and is something different from either verdaccio or grisaille.

I may have posted earlier that the old master portraits and figures I’ve seen up-close in musea recently – notably Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals and David – all seemed to display a common feature, which was a brown transparent color in the shadows of the flesh, over which the lights and some midtones had been layered opaquely. I’ve seen photos of other old master works (I’m thinking of Velasquez in particular) which also seem to display this: shadows left transparent to the canvas, lights built with opaque colors. I’m sure this process isn’t universal or anywhere near it; but it’s common enough that it seems to have been a standard procedure, if one of many.

I noticed this some time back, but had held off on introducing it into my own work, probably because I fell in love with thick paint and broad brushwork – which haven’t lent themselves to the care which is required to preserve transparency in shadows. But more recently, when I took a portrait painting class with Vanessa Lemen, I discovered she was following this very procedure of leaving shadows transparent from session to session, and I couldn’t help noting how efficient it was for her.

So, after a few experiments, I tried the process with this portrait. The underpainting was brown ochre and lead white (Da Vinci Arizona Brown Ochre and Rublev Lead White #2). After the underpainting dried, I used transparent earths – siennas and yellow ochre light – in a transparent glaze which both gave a bit of color to the shadows (especially a bit of red around the cheeks and ears), and provided a nice couch into which to lay the opaque lights, wet-into-wet. (This is a trick I learned from Vanessa.) I took some care to leave the shadows transparent, except for a bit of reflected light under the chin (which is the only place that got screwed up – gotta be careful with those!). At the same time, I painted the shirt opaquely in something similare to a grisaille, but with some color variation.

If I were a more accomplished painter, I could have completed the skin tones in two layers. It really is an efficient way to work. As it was, it took some fixing. The whole thing was painted using a student palette of natural earths and lead white, plus a final glaze layer of Prussian blue over the shirt. I think of this as an “Eighteenth-century Palette,” as Prussian blue was discovered in 1704 and used through much of that century. Snapshots of the process are presented below:

Neil Portrait Process

Neil Portrait Process

I do still love thick paint, and I will not sacrifice it to this technique. I will be keeping in my mind the question of how to use the two together. I am already using shorter, smaller brushstrokes rather than the big paint smears of just a little while ago; perhaps these two methods will meet in the middle.

Note: I am currently engaged in a massive madder harvest. I should be finished within the next two weeks, and I will post about that. Good painting!

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2 Responses to “Brunaille, Eighteenth-century Palette”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    Hello I am really inspired by your blog. I am trying to learn more about earth pigments too. If you can I would love to chat with you. art@lindsayseligman.com

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